A national group of victims of priest abuse called on the Catholic Church on Monday to send former Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart to a friary in rural Kansas, which would mean expelling him from his diocese-owned home in Cheyenne.
“When an abuser is suspended or gets older, he’s not magically cured, so even after ousting or even defrocking sex offending clerics, the Catholic hierarchy has a duty to safeguard others from them,” the group, the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said Monday in a statement.
Hart has been accused since at least the early 1990s of sexually abusing boys, with some victims saying he abused them as far back as 1963. He has consistently denied those allegations. His former diocese, in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, has settled with 10 men who say they were abused by Hart. An additional four men have come forward in Missouri in just the past year, the diocese there told the Star-Tribune.
In Wyoming, where Hart was bishop from 1976 to 2001, Cheyenne police launched an investigation last summer into his alleged past misconduct in the capital city. At least three victims have come forward in Wyoming and accused Hart of abuse, according to the Diocese of Cheyenne. Two weeks ago, police announced that they were recommending charges against two men related to clergy abuse.
Citing state statute, police have refused to name either man, but details provided by police align with Hart.
Since at least 2002, when Hart was investigated by police after a victim in Wyoming came forward and alleged the former bishop had abused him in the mid-1970s, Hart has lived in a gated community in northern Cheyenne. A police report from that time lists the address as Hart’s. A Star-Tribune reporter rang the doorbell of his home last week and spoke briefly with Hart.
Hart declined to speak with the reporter and referred comment to his attorney, Tom Jubin, who has not replied to repeated attempts to contact him in recent weeks. The bishop, who is well into his 80s, had an oxygen tube in his nostrils. Asked if he had anything he wanted to say, he told the reporter to have a good day and closed the door.
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According to property records, the home — which is walking distance from a high school — is owned by the Diocese of Cheyenne.
It’s not the only form of support the diocese gives the former bishop, who if he is prosecuted by authorities, will be the first bishop in U.S. history to be charged with sexual abuse. According to financial documents published by the diocese in December, the Catholic Church in Wyoming spent about $17,000 on Hart in the 2017-18 fiscal year. That’s in addition to the roughly $110,000 the church spent that same year on legal expenses related to the former bishop.
In financial documents from 2013-14 published on the diocese’s website, the church spent $148,000 on “bishop and retired bishop” related expenses, apparently a combined expenditure for both Hart and then-Bishop Paul Etienne. Requests for more complete financial documents from the diocese were not returned.
It’s unclear what the diocese has spent annually on Hart, who’s ability to publicly celebrate the Catholic mass was restricted in 2015 and who is facing a trial by Vatican authorities for his alleged sexual abuse. The diocese has not replied to a list of questions sent Aug. 20 about its financial support for Hart.
Perhaps inconveniently for the church in cases like Hart’s, there are guidelines requiring that retired bishops be taken care of. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its financial management guidelines, recommends a stipend of $1,900 per month be given to retired bishops. The organization also calls for “appropriate housing and board,” “an insured automobile” and “health and welfare benefits.”
The diocese also did not respond to a followup email sent Wednesday seeking comment on the group’s call to send Hart to the friary in Victoria, Kansas.
The survivors group, often referred to simply as SNAP, said the church could neither allow Hart to continue to live in his community, nor could it simply remove him from the church and call it even.
“And church officials can’t recruit, educate, ordain, hire, supervise, transfer and shield these men only to suddenly cut them loose, providing no oversight or supervision, and let them quietly live among unsuspecting families,” the group wrote. “When this happens, abusers can pass themselves off as ‘retired’ clerics and befriend vulnerable adults and kids.”
Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann